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What was the strange thing that The Terminating Robot had just strangled? Odd foe, it was, the paper that had come rambling up through the ventilation system. What was it -- a snake? What moved it—for it was not flesh and blood, but paper?

And whence had come the eyeball that made the snake’s flimsy “head?”

Who had infiltrated this office—who doubted the future-robot’s power? As soon as he heard it rustling in the grate, The Terminating Robot, with an oil can open and fresh in his hand, had closed in on it, lickety-split, and stomped the eyeball hyper-fast with his shiny metal bootheel. Now the bloodstain, the eyegoop, and that withered, pitiful stalk of thin paper sat together on the grate, trickling back down into prison.

At the same time, Adam gave a grunt. This grunt was played in stereo—five screens among the twenty-five screamed, “GYAAAAAEURGH!”

But let us back up. Just a minute before, The Terminating Robot had sent out his guards, some to the prison’s broken water vein, others to Adam’s cell. Thereby came the chitinous clicks of velociraptor heels. Four came to Adam, wide-eyed and skinny-tailed, and they ambled like killers, mouths so potent with death’s-edge they seemed full of pencils. They came to the cell and stared inside like cats that were not cats.

But Adam had simply sat against the wall, looking preeminently thoughtful. A faint reddish-golden glow issued from him...or was that just the imagination of the dinosaurs, combined with the differences in dinosaur eyes as compared to human eyes, which might have allowed them to see infrared?

The old man, sitting cross-legged with his face to the wall, had been churning the air, as usual, with his spoon. He turned to nod gregariously. “Let ‘im be! Got a lot to think about.”

After a brief chorus of dino roars, a decision was made. The raptors tossed rocks at Adam. They bounced off, as off bronze, and he did not budge. He did not so much as open his eyes.

And The Terminating Robot, watching this, had commanded, “Try harder.”

The cell had clanged open. To prisoners who thirsted for freedom, that harsh jangle was almost a jingle—a potentially friendly thing, simple open-and-shut, and though the bars were strong, they were so small, such a slight barrier between them and the world. The door was opened, and closed, and yet neither the spoony man nor the mummy one had budged. All that had changed was the presence, added, of the raptors.

Before Adam then were the ravenous guards; behind him was the wall. He had sat there thinker-like, and the prisoners had held their breath. They were familiar with the raptor guards’ performance, the way they started with spittled roars blared into an inmate’s face, and then, without ceremony, kicked.

They just kicked. They kicked him in the gut. They kicked and kicked with chitinous ticks, and the fire of Adam’s blood leaped and licked, his flesh burned and screamed and he remained—static.

I know not what was going through Adam’s forty-three minds, but I do know this: he was wholly disappointed.

It would take a lot more than raptor stomps to get a rise out of him...in fact, it would take a robot stomp. Behind his back was a secret tunnel, through which his papyrus had drilled and wound in secret; into the warden’s office it had appeared then—and been crushed—and with a scream, one curdled as the blood of his squashy eye, he announced boldly to the world—squielch! — “GYAAAAAEURGH!”

And this disturbed The Terminating Robot.

How had that eyestalk drilled through the walls without him noticing? After all, he was a hyper-sensitive, alternate-recent-past robot, able to detect the slightest disturbance, the taps and thumps, and the slightest change in prison talk. He blamed Helen and her distraction, the aggravation of daily life far underground in the thirty-first-century equivalent of a salt mine.

The Terminating Robot, disbelieving, spat oil at the screens! He cursed, stomped, wiped them clean! “Blast!” he yelled. “How much oil do they think I got down here?”

He reached down below his desk into an incredibly long, incredibly wide refrigerator. He grabbed one of the remaining 20,084 cans inside and slammed it onto his desk. He cracked open the tab, gave it the once-over, and realized he did not want this, that the last thing he wanted to do was relax and calm down. No, he would train his eyes, blue electric storms, on the monitors...

***

Alice pinched a SWAT guard in the back of the neck!

He did not fall. In fact, he hardly felt it, and began to casually rub his neck with a slow-witted, “Huh?”

Straightaway Alice leaped off of the neck, and onto an invisible bat pre-swaddled in garlic scent—and reader, if this scene does confuse you, remind yourself that Alice could become tiny, and realize, with a relieved sigh, that this writer has not lost their mind, and the former commander had merely eaten the “EAT ME!”

So had Robert, who was riding on the same bat’s back. They rode Bistritz with the approximate proportions of human riders on horseback—albeit with a big pointy castle in place of a saddle, meaning that they had to sit delicately.

“Shoot,” Alice cusswhispered as she hopped aboard. “Thought that would do it.”

Really? Really, now? With such small and weaksome fingers? Robert was annoyed at the very notion. He tossed her a laser rifle, and of course, Alice thought he was being polite, not brusque.

A moment later, three security cameras in that steel holochromine corridor picked up a line of phantom light that struck a werewolf in the jugular vein; when the SWAT guard fell, a host of red lights and sirens went off, drenching the world in warny sensation.

They had to get out, fast, but first—that door! The door he had been guarding!

Robert, Alice, and the great steed Bistritz had no actual proof that their own Dracula was writhing inside. They were merely combing the area, peering through the windows and cracks in doors, sweeping the kitchen, the dining room, the other three dining rooms, and the main hall…and now this conspicuously important corridor. It had given them a hunch. They intuited that it might contain an Igor, a Dracula, or even both—and finding either one would suit their mission. Also, perhaps it contained a black cat.

This was all touch-and-go, which frustrated them both, as if the Brown House were rubbing its paw all over the careful chess board, seeing the destruction of their well-planned thoughts and laughing all the while.

Some relief came, however, in the form of direction. An armored guard at a door whose window was so harsh with sunlight that looking inside was impossible—the deadest of giveaways!

As soon as that guard hit the floor, however, six more dashed in so quickly that they might as well have teleported—and, considering the future and all, they may well have. They aimed precisely at Bistritz’s spot and let loose. A machine gun rattled off a full magazine—but its bullets only pierced the wall. One lobbed a bomb of ice, one lobbed a bomb of water—only to hit each other, forming a midair crystal that captured nobody. A barrage of crosses, stakes, and rices clashed against each other, none to any avail. Bistritz could fly faster than those guards with his eyes closed, literally in his sleep!

With an involuntary squeak, he plunged daringly into the door’s glass window. Before he splattered deplorably ‘cross, Robert and Alice aimed laser guns at the thing and blasted it apart; they and the bat passed through a shimmering rain, which did create some minor cuts, but nothing too major.

The artificial sunlight overwhelmed the red hallway—that is, the chunk of it where the guards had concentrated. After the collective and instinctual “ugh, my eyes, my moon, my MOON,” they remembered that their mini-moons, like themselves, were donning little helmets with little protective visors. Those rocks, along with their own puppish forms, had therefore nothing to be afraid of.

So they set foot into that heat-white room, where Dracula was sunning himself…against his will!

Bistritz flapped beside the door and, seeing his suffering friend, stifled a cry of relief and sorrow. The sun’s rays passed harmless through his own transparent form…but sunlight trapped itself in vampire flesh, coaxing it to burn, drawing out, with smoky fingers, the makings of inferno. As if to say, “If no mortal foe can bring your sort to Hell, then I, Prometheus, will take it to you!”

But no fires had broken out on Dracula’s—oh! Oh! Oh no, it was starting!

Alice pondered, although less than a second had elapsed since Bistritz flew them into this sun-trap; she was a speedy ponderer. “Maybe if we—”

“No time,” said Robert, and he was right, for their initial hope had been to shrink Dracula and take him aboard the same bat. “Eek eek,” he said to Bistritz, and they U-turned, hearts heavy with uncircumventable regret.

They fluttered away. Their world changed from white to red; two, then five, then twenty more guards passed below them, flooding into that much-changed interrogation room.

Alice had come up with a plan: “Maybe we can help Dracula if we hang around outsi—”

WHREEEM! WHREEEM! WHREEEM! The sirens were growing louder, less forgiving to their ears.

Bistritz could not smother his initial cry of pain! “EEEEEK!”

“I guess not,” she said, and briefly massaged his superkeen, ultrasound-sensitive ears. The longer they stayed here, the louder and more intolerable those blasted noise-blasters would become.

“Well,” Robert allowed, “at least that leaves the security a little uneven.”

“Last I heard,” Alice informed, “the Brown House SWAT count for today’s landing was about five thousand.”

He sighed. “Oh, geez…”

“Listen,” said Alice as Bistritz turned a corner, swinging even closer toward the Brown House’s heart. “I know we didn’t have enough time to save Dracula, but—”

“He’ll use those guards—he’ll find a way. I think he’s strong enough,” Robert pitched in, with perfect faith.

“—but I figured that if I didn’t suggest that there was a way, it would be kind of strange, since, as you know, he’s our ally.”

“Yes, I know…” He narrowed his eyes at her, though she could not see them.

“And if I went, ‘Yes, leave him,’ you might think I was leaving him to die, which, I thought, is sort of what the enemy would do,”

“Look, Alice, it’s just now dawning on me that you don’t really understand sarcasm and that maybe I should clear that up. And…” He sighed again, but it was a sigh of a different color. “Maybe I’ve been the bad guy.”

“Excuse me?”

He was not sure at first whether Alice was affronted or struck with a healing bolt of realization. Then she reached in her deep coat pocket and summoned a flamethrower, pointed dead between the eyes, though she could not see them.

Robert winced. A chime dinged in the distance. “Sorry! I didn’t mean ‘bad guy’ literally. This is what I meant with the sarcasm!”

Alice was undeterred; she reached along the barrel and clicked a preparatory switch. “So you’re the double agent? Who knew?”

“It won’t matter if we’re both dead! ELEVATOR, EEK!”

Bistritz, as a stratospheric bat, had zero grasp of the inner workings of elevators—he’d had no way of knowing that the open door before him was fast becoming a tight squeeze. Thanks to Robert’s warning, he turned sideways in the nick of time and nearly smacked into a corner, banging the wall with his side.

Thoomp. And then all was quiet.

“What was that?” said no one, for none among the small crowd of guards in this elevator had ever associated with the others, and to say their first words now, in a cramped environment where every sound was an irritation, would have been vastly uncomfortable.

The door closed. One officer sniffled. “Hey, is that…garlic? Is that a new perfume? …I like it.”

Nobody replied. It was as uncomfortable as they had feared.

A minute later—a minute of silence and staying put as Alice kept her sights in the precise center of Robert’s forehead—and the doors re-oped, and the werewolves shuffled out all at once. Bistritz and his riders all released their held breath. They stayed inside the closed elevator, the better for to speak.

“I don’t get this ‘proving yourself’ business,” said Robert, doing his best to act as if he were dauntless of the ‘thrower. “It feels artificial, Alice, and that’s why I’ve never stopped suspecting you. Or is that what humanity is like now?”

Alice turned these words over in her mind…and then she lowered the weapon. “I guess it’s not a problem of humanity. It’s a problem of time…taking humans away from me.”

“Or humanity away from you?”

“Now you’re just looking for ways to be angry. You’re just bitter, aren’t you?”

He looked in her face most fiercely, though all he saw was the wall. He said accusingly, “Who’s bitter?”

“Eek! Eek, eek! Eek, eek, eek. Eek, eek, eek, eek! Eek eek! Eek, eek, eek eek, eek, eek. Eek!”

“What’s he saying?” said Alice, and the recognition of an invisibat’s pain made her voice a little sorry to have offended him, and ever so slightly tender.

Robert’s voice went through the same amelioration. “He says there’s no need for us to fight. That this is the absolute worst time. And he accepts you as a friend.”

“He has no stake in it,” she said automatically.

The elevator had been going down for several seconds; now it began to slow, and Bistritz began crawling toward the exit.

“It’s not always about stakes, Alice. You can do good for someone without getting anything out of it, you can put yourself on the line for a stranger. In fact, that’s how our whole mission started. We were working for a planet we don’t even know, for the principle of the thing. Then when Trials joined, we added negotiation for recovery of the moon…and it was your idea to add the planet that we all live on.”

“Eek, eek, eek, eek, eek!”

Robert chuckled. “Right. It’s a heck of a fine idea…”

The door opened to a hallway as slick as the last, but with grey chromine instead of white. These floors were not designed primarily for the tough-yet-supple, careful feet of trained guards, but for lab assistants, their unrefined scientific gaits. Before a pair of leather shoes and its hanging lab coat could march into the elevator, Bistritz flitted out, close to soundless…and the elevator moved on.

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About the author

jmassat

Bio: I write, I draw, I do it all

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